In our last essay we studied 14:25-35, which had to do with the cost of discipleship. In this essay we are studying Luke, chapter 15, which is about God’s joy at finding what he lost. Verses 1-3 are an introduction that sets the context for three parables that follow.
The teaching and preaching of Jesus was attracting a lot of “tax collectors and sinners.” Tax collectors were despised as evil persons, because they used oppressive means to collect the taxes and got rich in the process. The “sinners” were people who did not keep the Law and who did inappropriate things. The Pharisees and scribes, who meticulously kept the Law, would not associate with such people. And they did not approve of Jesus’ associations with them, especially his willingness to eat with them. Jesus perceived their disapproval, and he told the three parables that follow in response.
The first parable, in verses 4-7, is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. In this parable, Jesus challenges the Pharisees. “Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it?” Sheep obviously were valuable, and one sheep was worth saving. After finding the lost sheep, the shepherd rejoices and gathers his family and friends to celebrate.
In the parable, the shepherd symbolizes God, and the lost sheep symbolizes the despised tax collectors and sinners. And Jesus was saying that sinners, like lost sheep, are worth saving. And of course the rejoicing and celebration of the shepherd symbolizes how God rejoices and celebrates when a lost sinner is found. In verse seven Jesus makes that application directly.
You do not want to misunderstand what Jesus had to say about “ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” His tongue was in his cheek when he said that. These were not genuinely righteous persons. They were people like the Pharisee who thought themselves righteous, but who were not. God rejoices over genuinely righteous people, just as he rejoices over sinners who repent. Truly righteous people already have repented.
The second parable in verses 8-10 is about a lost coin. The coins mentioned here were Greek drachmas, which were roughly equivalent to Roman denarii. And a denarius represented a day’s wages for a laborer in that society. So the lost coin was very valuable. And the woman went to great lengths to find it. When she found it, like the shepherd in the previous parable, she rejoiced and celebrated with her family and friends. And as before, Jesus makes an application (v. 10).
Once again the woman represents God; the lost coin represents lost sinners; and the woman’s rejoicing represents the rejoicing of God over a found lost sinner. However this parable is different from the first in that in the first parable, there was considerable emphasis on the benefit to the sinner. The found sheep received tender care (v. 5) and was taken home. Here the emphasis is entirely on the benefit to God. He has recovered something valuable to him. In his application, Jesus says that the finding of a lost sinner cause “joy in the presence of the angels.” Surely this means that God, and perhaps the heavenly saints, rejoices in their presence.
The third parable is about a lost son, or some would say lost sons. This parable is much more complex than the previous two. We are immediately told in verse 11 that the man had two sons, though the second son does not come into the story until verse 25. We all are familiar with what the younger son did. He asked for his inheritance in advance, because he wanted to get away from home and live independently. This kind of arrangement occasionally was made in situations like this.
Under Jewish law the elder son always got a double portion of inheritance, because he was responsible for supporting the parents in their old age and any unmarried sisters. Thus in this particular situation, the younger brother would be given a cash settlement amounting to one share of the parent’s property. Assuming these were the only two sons, it would have been a third of the property. Then when the father died, the entire remaining estate would go to the elder brother.
Before we take up the story, I want to remind you of the symbolism that is here due to the context given in verses one and two. The father represents God. The younger son represents sinners such as the tax collectors and other sinners. And the elder brother, when we get to him, represents the Pharisees and scribes who have legalistically stuck close to the Law but have their own issues.
The younger son’s story has four phases that correspond to the phases of a converted sinner’s life. The first phase, in verses 11-13, is the Sin Phase.
Undoubtedly several factors were at work in this son’s desire to take his inheritance and leave home. We can speculate on a couple of them. For one thing, he probably felt oppressed by the atmosphere at home. He was under his father’s command there, and he wanted to make his own decisions about what to do. In addition, the “world” probably looked exceedingly attractive to him. There were interesting and fun things waiting to be done, new places to go, and people to meet. Like many young people, he probably dreamed of the day when he would be on his own doing what he wanted to do, instead of being under the thumb of his father.
In order to fulfill his dreams, he needed two things: freedom and money. If he could just get his hands on enough money, and get away from mom and dad, he could indulge himself in the worldly desires of his heart. Many adults have similar thoughts in regard to their spiritual lives. If we could just get away from God and his rules, and if we could come up with enough money, we could indulge our various worldly appetites.
Then an idea came to the young man. He decided to ask for his inheritance in advance. And like God who allows us to go our own way if we insist on it, the father agreed. Like God the father did not force the young man to stay in relationship with him, let alone stay under his rules. So the father gave the younger son his inheritance, and he left for a distant country.” In other words, the young man got as far away from daddy as he could; and of course that symbolized the state of his soul. He was now able to do whatever he wanted. He threw off all restraint and enjoyed spending his inheritance on “dissolute living.”
I don’t doubt for a minute that the young man had fun. Sin can be a lot of fun. But sin has a price. And the price always is paid sooner or later. In this case, the young man paid a price that is seen in the second phase of his spiritual life, the Misery Phase, seen in verses 14-16.
The young man’s inheritance must have seemed like a fortune to him when he first received it. But instead of investing some of it, he simply spent it all. And soon it was all gone. Then came an unrelated crisis. A famine reduced him to abject poverty. He took the only job he could get, a job that included feeding pigs. We know that this was the only job he could get, because no self-respecting Jew would work with pigs if he could find anything else to do. That young man had sunk to the lowest possible level. The wages were so poor he couldn’t afford decent food. The pigs ate really well, because they were being fattened for slaughter. And the young man found himself envying the pigs. He now was experiencing the misery of sin. He sought pleasure, but he found pain. He desired freedom, but he gained bondage. He was in the grip of the misery of sin.
But happily the story doesn’t end there. The third phase of the young man’s spiritual life, seen in verses 17-20a, was the Conversion Phase. There are two essentials for conversion, repentance and faith. And both appear in these verses. The young man “came to himself,” we are told in verse 17. There is the repentance. He realized that it would be better to be a servant in his father’s house than a poverty stricken free man in the world. And he came to himself. He was ready to take the position of a servant in the house where he had lived as a son. It didn’t occur to him that he might be restored as a son. He knew he didn’t deserve that.
This is how the sinner finds God. We come to the end of our own resources, whether spiritual physical, or both, as was the case with this lost son. And we decide we want to go home. By the way, it is easy to tell that the young man was sincere. He could have returned home without repenting. He could have gone home with a big story about how the famine brought him down, or how those nasty foreigners among whom he lived did him wrong. He had lots of ways to try to excuse himself, had he wanted to do that. But he was genuinely repentant.
Notice that the young man not only was repentant, he acted on his repentance. That is another necessary element. We must approach God with faith. It is faith that brings us into personal contact with God. Indeed there is no other way to restore the relationship. The young man believed in his father, and so he headed home.
The fourth phase of a converted sinner’s life is the Restoration Phase. In verses 20b-24, we notice that the restoration was complete. Like the earthly father in the parable, the heavenly Father never stops waiting for his children to come home. And when God’s children are repentant and believing, God runs to meet us.
Now then, in verses 25-32, the elder brother comes into the parable. As the celebration over the return of the lost son moves into full swing, the elder brother who has been working in the field approaches the house. He learns what has happened from a slave, and evidently was shocked. His first reaction was not one of joy, but of anger. And he refused to enter the house.
The father, like God, wanted his elder son to enjoy the party. He came out and personally invited his son, indeed he pleaded with him, to come in and participate. But the son’s answer was the answer of jealousy. And it reeks of the attitude of the Pharisee. First he contrasts his behavior with that of his younger brother: “I have never disobeyed your command,” he asserts. But “this son of yours . . . .” Notice that the elder brother won’t claim the younger sibling as his brother. “This son of yours . . . has devoured your property with prostitutes.”
And then he contrasts the behavior of the father towards him and his brother in an attempt to claim partiality in favor of the younger. “You have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.” “But when this son of yours came back, . . . you killed the fatted calf for him.” That is classic Pharisaism! Pharisees believe hey ought to be rewarded for following the rules, and those who do not follow the rules must be punished.
Look at the father’s reply. It is a perfect answer to the son’s complaint. “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” There is no injustice, nor any partiality. The elder son had constant fellowship with the father, and he was heir to the father’s entire fortune. Moreover, there was good reason to celebrate the return of the younger son. He “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” Love not only permits forgiveness, it demands it.
There is one more important thing to notice about this parable. Notice that Jesus did not provide an ending to the story. The end of the story depended on the response of the scribes and Pharisees to whom it was told. Although it was easy for them to identify with a lost sheep or coin, it was very difficult for them to identify with a lost sinner.
There are many Pharisees in our churches today. They have feelings like the elder brother towards people who apparently have had a lot of fun sinning it up, and then were forgiven. These Pharisaic Christians never had any of that sinful fun. They followed the rules, and they should be rewarded rather than the forgiven sinners.